Economic Disparity in South Korea: History
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Subjects: Economics

Economic disparity in South Korea is the extent by which income, most commonly measured by household or individual, is distributed in an uneven manner in South Korea . According to data during the 2010s, low-income earners[lower-alpha 1] make up to 40% of South Korea's entire labour force. Conversely, the highest income earners[lower-alpha 2] make up only 1–1.3% of the labour force. In general, 98.7% of South Koreans make less than annually. According to 2015 data, more than 63% of workers make less than Template:KRWConvert annually. Many South Koreans especially those of the younger generation feel that they are not benefiting during periods of economic growth, and have criticized the increasingly difficult socioeconomic situation and class stratification in the country, dubbing it as "Hell Joseon" (Korean: 헬조선). They have also described themselves as being a part of the Sampo generation, whereby they have given up on courtship, marriage, and having kids due to the high costs of living and unemployment, and consequently the N-po generation. Moreover, much of the country's income inequality can be attributed to the dominance of chaebols (Korean: 재벌; lit. "rich family"), which has also been seen by many South Koreans as highly corrupt and influential in the political system. Its dominance is also likely to last and engenders the risk of slowing down the transformation of the South Korean economy for the benefit of future generations. The country also has the highest levels of poverty among the elderly in the developed world. In 2018, about half of the country's elderly lived in poverty, three times the OECD average, with many of them homeless. As a result, South Korea regularly claims the highest suicide rate in the OECD and the wider developed world.

  • 헬조선
  • income inequality
  • unemployment

1. Effects on South Korean Youth

Economic disparity is often linked to low or limited social mobility, a situation which may instill a sense of hopelessness among South Korea's youth.[1] Gambling, though extremely limited due to its legality in South Korea, can be a dangerous source of debt for South Koreans who are susceptible to gambling and gambling addiction.[2] In 2017, the easy availability of cryptocurrrency in South Korea,[3] combined with a lack of legal outlets for gambling, has contributed to gambling problems and associated debt.[4] Others have also been led to suicide, which has remained the leading cause of deaths for a number of years.[5]

2. Reasons

There are many reasons for Economic disparity, but the following causes are mainly talked about in South Korea.

2.1. Corruption

Corruption is a serious problem in South Korea; all four living former South Korean presidents have been sentenced to prison for various crimes ranging from abuse of authority to bribery and embezzlement; with two still currently serving their sentences.[6][7][8][9][10]

2.2. Elitism

Tertiary education was once seen by many South Koreans as a source of social mobility in the country. However, many now consider the education system to be elitist, resulting in only those connected to the chaebols and the government being able to easily get top spots in universities, civil service positions, while also for men even evading conscription entirely.[11][12]

2.3. Financial Crisis of 1997

South Korea suffered a severe financial crisis around 1997 to 2001, and had to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of about Template:KRWConvert to prevent total economic collapse.[13] The crisis was damning to the country, causing its worst recession in the post-war era. GDP growth had a negative 6.5% rate in 1998. In the aftermath of the crisis, unemployment rose from pre-crisis levels of 2% to 9.8% in 1998 and 8.1% in March 1999.[14]

The crisis also ensured a contraction in domestic investments. Conservative South Korean political parties attribute Economic disparity to the slump in the domestic economy and strengthening the nation's economic structure to be dependent on exports. However, prior to the crisis, local companies used to make lax external investments, and ironically these over-investments ever since had a positive impact on employment.[14]

Many South Koreans believe that despite supposed economic recovery ever since, the country as a whole never really recovered from the crisis, with income gap widening especially among the middle and working classes.[14]

2.4. The Intensification of Social Competition

South Korea is a hypercompetitive country, which results in enormous pressure. This is mainly as a result of sky high stakes in many aspects of South Korean society, including societal expectations such as education attainment, family background, and looks.[15] Those who do not have significant connections or conform with Korean beauty standards are ostracized, leading to reduced economic opportunities before one is even born.[16]

This also isn't helped by the physical appearance of many K-pop idols as well as celebrities, which has greatly impacted the beauty standards in the country.[17]

2.5. Employment Deterioration

The poverty of low-income people is getting worse due to the long-term deterioration of employment in South Korea. The government has claimed that it has tried to increase employment every time over the past few years, but with no significant results.[18]

In 2018, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) mentioned that South Korea's income inequality was the poorest among 22 Asian-Pacific countries. In this article, while the nation's economic growth is growing fast, it also talked about inequality in household income due to the difficulty of finding jobs for young job seekers.[19]

3. Government Responses

In January 2019, president Moon Jae-in's economic adviser Kim Hyun-chul resigned for disparaging that young, unemployed Korean graduates or retirees who couldn't find a job in the country should stop "blaming the country and the government" and to "leave the country to become Korean language teachers".[20] He received severe public anger and criticism for his remark.

In 2020, COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated income inequality in the country.[21] The president blamed the deepening wealth gap between the rich and the poor to the pandemic, despite the fact that income inequality was already a major problem prior to the pandemic.[18]

4. In Popular Culture

  • Default, a South Korean drama film, portrays how the 1997 financial crisis affected South Koreans differently, with the middle and working classes disproportionately affected.[22]
  • The film, Parasite by Bong Joon-ho, depicted drastic inequality between South Korea's wealthy and the poor.[23]
  • Hwang Dong-hyuk, director and writer of the South Korean survival drama television series Squid Game, mentioned that he conceived the idea of the show based on his own personal experiences witnessing the drastic class disparity within the country, as well as his own severe economic struggles early in his life.[24][25][26]

The content is sourced from:


  1. Chang, Ha-Joon (25 February 2018). "How to Break Korea's Barriers to Social Mobility". New Europe. 
  2. "Household Debt Bomb". Undercover Asia. Series 7. Episode 5. 7 April 2020. Event occurs at 14:52. Channel News Asia.
  3. "South Korea's Cryptocurrency Addiction Explained". Foreign Exchange Live. 26 February 2018. 
  4. "[SNS돋보기 '일확천금' 비트코인 중독…"도박보다 무섭네""] (in ko). 
  5. "Suicide remains leading cause of death for S. Korean teens, youths". Korea Herald (from Yonhap). 
  6. "South Korea's troubling history of jailing ex-presidents". AEI. 9 October 2018. 
  7. Deutsche Welle ( "Former South Korean president sentenced to prison | DW | 30 November 2020" (in en-GB). 
  8. "Ex-President Roh Tae-woo to Pay Remainder of Massive Fine" (in en). The Chosunilbo. 22 August 2013. 
  9. "South Korea : President's impeachment on a background of political scandal" (in fr). 7 February 2017. 
  10. "South Korea ex-leader jailed for 15 years". BBC News. 5 October 2018. 
  11. Choe, Sang-Hun. "Coddling of ‘Gold-Spoon’ Children Shakes South Korea’s Political Elite". The New York Times. 
  12. Lee, Sunhwa, and Mary C. Brinton. "Elite Education and Social Capital: The Case of South Korea.” Sociology of Education 69, no. 3 (1996): 177–92.
  13. Heo, Uk; Kim, Sunwoong (2000). "Financial Crisis in South Korea: Failure of the Government-Led Development Paradigm". Asian Survey 40 (3): 492–507. doi:10.2307/3021158. ISSN 0004-4687. Retrieved 11 October 2021. 
  14. Kihwan, Kim. (2006). The 1997–98 Korean Financial Crisis: Causes, Policy Response, and Lessons. The High-Level Seminar on Crisis Prevention in Emerging Markets, The International Monetary Fund and The Government of Singapore
  15. Williams, Mike (30 January 2020). "'Hell Joseon' and the South Korean generation pushing to a breaking point". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 
  16. "Suicide is on the rise among South Korean women". The Economist. 
  17. "Unrealistic Beauty Standards: Korea's Cosmetic Obsession". 26 March 2015. 
  18. "1분기 빈부 격차↑…靑 "정부지원소득 빠르게 늘어, 정책 효과"" (in ko). 
  19. "Korea worst in income inequality in Asia-Pacific" (in en). 16 March 2016. 
  20. "Moon’s economic adviser resigns over ‘Hell Joseon’ jab". Korea JoongAng Daily. 29 January 2019. 
  21. "OECD 빈곤율 2위 오명 한국… 코로나19 경제위기로 악화되나" (in ko). 
  22. "영화 '국가부도의 날'이 주는 교훈, "위기는 반복된다, 잊지 말자 IMF사태"" (in ko). 4 April 2019. 
  23. Bloomberg, David Fickling |. "Analysis | What 'Parasite' Misses About Inequality in South Korea" (in en). 
  24. Sit, Jane; Kang, Liz (7 October 2021). "'Squid Game' director Hwang Dong-hyuk: 'This is a story about losers'". CNN. 
  25. Young, Jin Yu. "Behind the Global Appeal of ‘Squid Game,’ a Country’s Economic Unease". The New York Times. 
  26. Frater, Patrick (24 September 2021). "‘Squid Game’ Director Hwang Dong-hyuk on Netflix’s Hit Korean Series and Prospects for a Sequel (EXCLUSIVE)". 
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